Georgia Bulldogs: A.J. Johnson

Ranking the SEC linebackers

June, 18, 2014
Jun 18
3:30
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Who are the SEC's top 10 linebackers (inside or outside) for the 2014 season?

Here's the way we see them stacking up:

[+] EnlargeBenardrick McKinney
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesBenardrick McKinney is ready to take the leap to stardom for Mississippi State.
1. Benardrick McKinney, RJr., Mississippi State: At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, McKinney is an imposing figure. He returns as the Bulldogs' middle linebacker, but he's fast enough and athletic enough to also play on the outside. He has recorded 173 total tackles over the last two seasons and is ready to take that next step as one of the SEC's elite defenders.

2. Leonard Floyd, So., Georgia: It's a deep and experienced group of linebackers that Georgia will put on the field this season, and the 6-4, 230-pound Floyd is the most talented of the group. He's a blur coming off the edge from his outside linebacker position in the Dawgs' 3-4 defense. He had a team-high 6.5 sacks last season and will be even better as a sophomore.

3. Curt Maggitt, RJr., Tennessee: There are a couple caveats with the 6-3, 240-pound Maggitt. He missed all of last season after recovering from a knee injury, and he's also likely to line up more at end than outside linebacker. Either way, he's a dynamic playmaker and primed for a big season. If Maggitt stays healthy, he's a good bet to be the Comeback Player of the Year in the league.

4. Trey DePriest, Sr., Alabama: The 6-2, 245-pound DePriest is a two-year starter at middle linebacker. He's not the fastest linebacker Alabama has produced and certainly not in C.J. Mosley's class, but he's a big hitter and loves the physical part of the game. He had 7.5 tackles for loss last season and will take on even more of a leadership role this season.

5. A.J. Johnson, Sr., Tennessee: A starter since his freshman season, the 6-2, 242-pound Johnson has racked up more than 100 tackles each of the last two seasons. His efforts have been overshadowed somewhat because the Volunteers have struggled on defense, but he has been a tackling machine on Rocky Top.

6. Serderius Bryant, Sr., Ole Miss: He might not have the prototypical size for an SEC linebacker, but the 5-9, 218-pound Bryant emerged last season as one of the league's top big-play performers on defense. He led Ole Miss with 12.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. His speed is what sets him apart.

7. Kwon Alexander, Jr., LSU: Making the move to weakside linebacker in LSU's defense, the 6-2, 218-pound Alexander should make even more big plays in 2014. He has tremendous speed and the versatility to play all three linebacker spots. But with Lamin Barrow departing, the Tigers need him most on the weak side.

8. Denzel Devall, Jr., Alabama: After recording three sacks last season in a part-time role, the 6-2, 250-pound Devall is poised to take off and have a breakout season in 2014. He's a natural as an outside linebacker in the Tide's 3-4 scheme and is a good bet to lead Alabama in sacks this season.

9. Jordan Jenkins, Jr., Georgia: The 6-3, 246-pound Jenkins has 10 sacks in his first two seasons and led the Bulldogs last season with 12 tackles for loss. With Jeremy Pruitt taking over as defensive coordinator, the Dawgs will look for more ways to free Jenkins up so he can do what he does best -- rush the passer. That could mean lining up at end in certain situations.

10. Ramik Wilson, Sr., Georgia: In his first season as a starter a year ago, the 6-2, 232-pound Wilson led the SEC with 134 tackles from his inside linebacker position and garnered first-team All-SEC honors. He brings experience, instincts and leadership to a Georgia linebacker corps that returns everybody.
The linebackers are up next in our SEC position rankings.

These are the guys who put up the big numbers and have the versatility to chase sideline to sideline, drop back into pass coverage, and rush the passer.

Here’s what we came up with as a group. Check back later today and we’ll rank the top 10 linebackers in the league.

[+] EnlargeTrey DePriest
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesTrey DePriest will fill the big shoes vacated by C.J. Mosley.
1. Alabama: It’s unfair to expect anybody to replace all of the things that C.J. Mosley provided for the Crimson Tide, but senior Trey DePriest is ready to step up as the leader of that defense after starting 12 games at middle linebacker last season. The Tide are never hurting for talent, so look for some new stars to emerge. Among them: Reggie Ragland, Denzel Devall, Dillon Lee and Reuben Foster, and look for heralded true freshmen Rashaan Evans and Da'Shawn Hand to play early at outside linebacker and in pass-rushing situations. Both should help the Tide immensely in that area.

2. LSU: Even with the loss of leading tackler Lamin Barrow, LSU is still brimming with talent at the linebacker. Senior D.J. Welter returns in the middle, but will be pushed by sophomore Kendell Beckwith. Defensive coordinator John Chavis is always going to give up size for speed at linebacker, and Kwon Alexander and Deion “Debo” Jones can fly. Alexander is moving from the strong side to the weak side to take Barrow’s spot. Look for him to make more plays there. Juniors Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist also return and will be in the rotation. The Tigers won’t lack for depth.

3. Georgia: First-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt takes over a Georgia defense that returns everybody at linebacker. The Bulldogs might not be as talented as some around the league at linebacker, but are long on experience. Seniors Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera both return inside after each collecting more than 100 total tackles last season. The difference-maker of the group is sophomore outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks as a freshman. On the other side, junior Jordan Jenkins is back after racking up 12 tackles for loss a year ago. Nobody in the league returns more production at linebacker, but the Dawgs did finish tied for 10th in the league a year ago in scoring defense and were eighth in total defense.

4. Mississippi State: There’s a lot to be excited about in Starkville this fall, especially with nine starters returning on defense. Redshirt junior middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney thought about turning pro, but returns as one of the top defenders in the league. Senior Matthew Wells is one of the most versatile linebackers in the SEC, while sophomores Beniquez Brown and Richie Brown will both see their roles expand. This should be as good a linebacker corps as Dan Mullen has had at Mississippi State, and he’s had some good ones.

5. Florida: With so many players injured this spring, getting a read on Florida at linebacker was difficult. The key contributors from last season return, and there’s no shortage of talent. Antonio Morrison was up and down at middle linebacker before getting hurt. The Florida coaches expect him to come back strong. Michael Taylor is also back in the middle after leading the team in tackles last season. Jarrad Davis was forced into action last season as a freshman and was one of the most pleasant surprises on the team. If Alex Anzalone, Neiron Ball and Matt Rolin can all stay healthy, this has a chance to be one of the better linebacker groups in the league.

6. South Carolina: One of the reasons the Gamecocks are thinking about tinkering with a 3-4 is that they like this group of linebackers and want to get their best players on the field. Sophomore Skai Moore was outstanding as a freshman last season and is only going to get better. The best news for South Carolina is that there’s competition at all of the linebacker spots among players with experience. Kaiwan Lewis and T.J. Holloman are both back in the middle, and sophomore Jonathan Walton could be a dark horse. Sharrod Golightly was one of the team’s most improved players last season and is back at the hybrid “spur” position.

[+] EnlargeCurt Maggitt
Skip Williams/Icon SMICurt Maggitt will return for Tennessee after missing the 2013 season with a knee injury.
7. Tennessee: Senior A.J. Johnson has been a tackling machine for the Volunteers, but the challenge for him is to make more big plays. Redshirt junior Curt Maggitt is back at outside linebacker after missing all of last season while recovering from a knee injury. Butch Jones says Maggitt will be the key for the Vols defensively. They want to use him in several different spots and turn him loose on the opposing quarterback, meaning he could spend more time at end than outside linebacker. Several younger players also could factor into the mix. But if the Vols are going to improve defensively from last season, Johnson and Maggitt both need to have big years.

8. Ole Miss: The Rebels will be without junior linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche in the opener against Boise State following his offseason arrest. But once Nkemdiche returns, he and senior Serderius Bryant form one of the best one-two punches in the league at linebacker. Ole Miss should also be faster across the board at linebacker with the addition of junior college newcomer Christian Russell in the middle. Don’t forget about sixth-year senior Deterrian Shackelford, who’s weathered injuries and looked a lot faster this spring after two knee surgeries.

9. Auburn: Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson would like to see more consistency from his linebackers this season. Juniors Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost are both back, and McKinzy is moving to middle linebacker. The Tigers would love to see junior Justin Garrett stay healthy after an injury-plagued 2013 season. He could help at weakside linebacker or the hybrid “star” position. True freshman Tre Williams, ranked by ESPN as the No. 4 inside linebacker prospect, has the size and speed to play right away.

10. Vanderbilt: With the Commodores moving to a base 3-4 scheme, that means Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann will shift from end to outside linebacker. Both are outstanding and combined for 16.5 tackles for loss last season. Junior Darreon Herring had a breakout season in 2013 and finished second on the team with 84 tackles. He will move from outside to inside linebacker. Redshirt freshman Nigel Bowden also has a big upside and is a prime candidate to be a breakout player this season.

11. Missouri: The Tigers have to replace two starters, including middle linebacker Andrew Wilson, who led the team in tackles in each of the past three seasons. Redshirt sophomore Michael Scherer’s development will be key. He started the spring at strongside linebacker but moved to middle linebacker after redshirt junior Kentrell Brothers underwent surgery for a torn labrum. The Tigers will need a healthy Brothers come fall.

12. Arkansas: The Razorbacks weren’t very healthy or productive a year ago at linebacker, but they’ve got just about everybody back. Sophomore Brooks Ellis has a chance to be really good in the middle, and junior Otha Peters looks like he’s finally healthy. A year after coming over from junior college, Martrell Spaight should be a much bigger factor his second time through the league. Seniors Braylon Mitchell and Daunte Carr also are back.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats have had a stream of quality linebackers to come through Lexington the last few years. The latest was middle linebacker Avery Williamson, who was taken in the fifth round of the NFL draft. Heading into this season, it’s difficult to pinpoint who will follow in Williamson’s footsteps. Junior Khalid Henderson has a chance, and it’s likely that junior college newcomer Ryan Flannigan will have to step in and play immediately. Early enrollee true freshman Dorian Hendrix had a big spring.

14. Texas A&M: Sophomore Darian Claiborne was one of the few proven playmakers returning on Texas A&M’s defense, and now he’s gone after being dismissed from the team earlier this month. Sophomore Jordan Mastrogiovanni and senior Donnie Baggs are the only returnees with any experience. The Aggies are hopeful that TCU transfer A.J. Hilliard can provide immediate help. Either way, there are a lot more questions than answers at a position that didn’t need any casualties.
The preseason watch lists for 2014 are about to start rolling in, and already we have 42 names on the Lott IMPACT Trophy watch list, which is awarded annually to the defensive player who has the biggest impact on his team.

IMPACT stands for Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community and Tenacity.

Eight of the 42 players are from the SEC:
The last SEC player to win the award was LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey in 2007. Georgia’s David Pollack won the inaugural award in 2004.

SEC's lunchtime links

March, 12, 2014
Mar 12
12:00
PM ET
Hard-working reporters put in some long hours for the NFL's first day of free agency. It was so packed with news, it was almost like a mini national signing day.

SEC's lunch links

January, 8, 2014
Jan 8
12:00
PM ET
It's Johnny Manziel's big day! Will he or won't he leave Texas A&M to go to the NFL? Start biting those fingernails now.

Our All-SEC second team choices

December, 17, 2013
12/17/13
2:00
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On Monday, we gave you guys our All-SEC first team. Today, we thought we'd unveil our second team for 2013. There are so many guys in this league who deserve recognition that we just wouldn't feel good about not having another team to give props to during the holiday season:

OFFENSE

QB: AJ McCarron, Alabama
RB: Jeremy Hill, LSU
RB: Mike Davis, South Carolina
WR: Jarvis Landry, LSU
WR: Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri
TE: Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt
OL: Justin Britt, Missouri
OL: A.J. Cann, South Carolina
OL: La'el Collins, LSU
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn
AP: Todd Gurley, Georgia

DEFENSE

DL: Kony Ealy, Missouri
DL: Chris Smith, Arkansas
DL: Ego Ferguson, LSU
DL: Markus Golden, Missouri
LB: A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
LB: Avery Williamson, Kentucky
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
DB: Andre Hal, Vanderbilt
DB: Chris Davis, Auburn
DB: Taveze Calhoun, Mississippi State

SPECIAL TEAMS

PK: Colby Delahoussaye, LSU
P: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
PR: Christion Jones, Alabama
KR: Christion Jones, Alabama

Alabama leads coaches All-SEC team

December, 10, 2013
12/10/13
5:00
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The SEC coaches have spoken, and Alabama has once again taken over their end-of-the-year All-SEC team.

The Crimson Tide led the rest of the league with nine representatives on the coaches' teams, including an SEC-leading five first-team selections. LSU followed with eight total representatives. Texas A&M had four first-team members, while Auburn and Georgia both had three each.

Twelve of the league's 14 teams had at least one player on the first team, while every team was represented on at least one team. Coaches weren't allowed to vote for their own players.

Here are the coaches' first- and second-team selections:

First team

OFFENSE
QB: Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
RB: Tre Mason, Auburn
RB: T.J. Yeldon, Alabama
AP: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
TE: Arthur Lynch, Georgia
OL: Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
OL: Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama
OL: Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State
OL: Wesley Johnson, Vanderbilt
C: Reese Dismukes, Auburn
WR: Mike Evans, Texas A&M
WR: Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt

DEFENSE
DL: Michael Sam, Missouri
DL: Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
DL: Dee Ford, Auburn
DL: Kelcy Quarles, South Carolina
LB: C.J. Mosley, Alabama
LB: Ramik Wilson, Georgia
LB: A.J. Johnson, Tennessee
DB: Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss
DB: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama
DB: E.J. Gaines, Missouri
DB: Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida

SPECIAL TEAMS
K: Marshall Morgan, Georgia
P: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
RS: Christion Jones, Alabama *
RS: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU *

Second team

OFFENSE
QB: AJ McCarron, Alabama
RB: Mike Davis, South Carolina
RB: Jeremy Hill, LSU
TE: Malcolm Johnson, Mississippi State
OL: La'el Collins, LSU
OL: Antonio Richardson, Tennessee
OL: Justin Britt, Missouri
OL: Anthony Steen, Alabama
C: Travis Swanson, Arkansas
WR: Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
WR: Jarvis Landry, LSU
AP: Marcus Murphy, Missouri

DEFENSE
DL: Anthony Johnson, LSU
DL: Chris Smith, Arkansas
DL: Ed Stinson, Alabama
DL: Trey Flowers, Arkansas
LB: Lamin Barrow, LSU
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
LB: Avery Williamson, Kentucky
DB: Andre Hal, Vanderbilt
DB: Chris Davis, Auburn
DB: Nickoe Whitley, Mississippi State
DB: Kenny Ladler, Vanderbilt

SPECIAL TEAMS
K: Michael Palardy, Tennessee
P: Cody Mandell, Alabama
RS: Solomon Patton, Florida

-- (*-ties)

Ranking the SEC linebackers

July, 9, 2013
7/09/13
4:00
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Now that you've seen where all the SEC linebacker units rank, let's check to see who the top 10 linebackers entering the 2013 season are.

This had to be one of the toughest lists to come up with, but here goes nothing:

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesDespite splitting reps, linebacker C.J. Mosley still managed to top Alabama in tackles last season.
1. C.J. Mosley, Sr., Alabama: Last year, he was considered one of the best linebackers in the country and might have been a first-round draft pick in this year's NFL draft if he had opted to leave school early. The Butkus Award finalist had to share time last year, but still led the Crimson Tide with 107 tackles and was second with four sacks. He should be even better with more time on the field this fall.

2. Jordan Jenkins, So., Georgia: Even though he was a backup last year, Jenkins was second on the team with five sacks and 23 quarterback hurries. Now he's taking over Jarvis Jones' position and has all the skill to be an elite pass-rusher in this league. He learned from one of the best in Jones, but might be even better suited for the position than his predecessor, which has to scare opposing offenses.

3. A.J. Johnson, Jr., Tennessee: Johnson was one of the hardest working linebackers in the league last year, leading the SEC with 138 total tackles. Sixty-three of those tackles were solo stops. The change to the traditional 4-3 scheme should help him, but Johnson also looked to become even more focused this spring. Johnson's next step is becoming a real field leader for this team.

4. Adrian Hubbard, Jr., Alabama: Nick Saban wants his front seven to get to the quarterback more, and Hubbard is expected to be even better at that this fall. He led the Tide with seven sacks last year and 11 tackles for loss. Hubbard and his coaches want more. Hubbard has great speed off the edge and can make plays all over the field. A big year could push himself into position to be a top draft prospect at his position.

5. Lamin Barrow, Sr., LSU: Kevin Minter might have been the star of LSU's defense last year, but Barrow was extremely productive with his 104 tackles, including 52 solo stops. He also had 7.5 tackles for loss, broke up five passes and recovered two fumbles. Barrow is the quarterback of LSU's defense and shouldn't have any problem dealing with more responsibility now that Minter is gone.

6. Antonio Morrison, So., Florida: Morrison served as a backup for the Gators last year, but started three games and registered 34 tackles and a sack. The coaches are expecting even more from the rangy and hard-hitting stud, as he moves to middle linebacker. He'll now be relied upon to be the quarterback and captain of this defense, meaning he still has a lot of growing to do, which showed after his offseason arrest.

7. Benardrick McKinney, So., Mississippi State: Quietly, McKinney had a very impressive year with the Bulldogs last year. He was eighth in the SEC with 102 tackles. He also registered 45 solo tackles and had 10 or more tackles in four games last year. He's the anchor of Mississippi State's linebacking corps and should catch the attention of a lot more people this fall.

8. Denzel Nkemdiche, So., Ole Miss: He was one of the biggest surprises around last year and earned second-team All-SEC honors after leading Ole Miss in tackles (82), tackles for loss (13) and forced fumbles (four). He also tied for the team lead in interceptions (three). Nkemdiche isn't the biggest player, but he can play all the linebacker positions and has the athleticism and speed to cover a ton of ground on the defensive side of the ball.

9. Ronald Powell, Jr., Florida: He missed all of last season after suffering two ACL injuries, but the word out of Gainesville is that he'll be fully ready to go when fall starts. His dedication to rehab and his humbled approach have his coaches and teammates excited about his 2013 season. He was playing his best ball before he was hurt last spring and if that Powell shows up this fall, he should be one of the top pass-rushers in the SEC.

10. Kwon Alexander, So., LSU: A broken ankle cut Alexander's freshman year short, but the coaches are very, very excited about his potential. He doesn't have a lot of stats to live off of, but he might be the most physically gifted linebacker in LSU's stable. He covers a lot of ground and should be a big-time playmaker for the Tigers.
In order to make a stand in the SEC, you have to have a strong front seven. It starts with a stout defensive line, but don't forget about those cats behind that front line.

Linebackers need love, too:

1. Alabama: For starters, "Linebacker U" will enter the 2013 season with three linebackers -- C.J. Mosley, Adrian Hubbard and Trey DePriest -- who started 10 or more games last season. Then there's Xzavier Dickson, who started seven games at the rush-end "Jack" position. All four played in every game last year, making play after play. Mosley was considered one of the nation's best linebackers and could have opted for the NFL early. He'll get even more time with Nico Johnson gone. Hubbard is the team's top pass-rusher, DePriest has transformed into a top linebacker prospect in next year's NFL draft and Dickson is versatile enough to play linebacker and on the line. There is also a ton of young talent to watch, starting with sophomore Denzel Devall, who could really break out.

[+] EnlargeLamin Barrow
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLamin Barrow should replace some of the production the Tigers lost when Kevin Minter moved on to the NFL.
2. LSU: Kevin Minter might be gone, but the Tigers still have some quality players roaming around the position. Lamin Barrow will anchor the group and is coming off a season in which he registered 104 tackles, including 52 solo stops. He's getting a ton of NFL love and will get help from very talented sophomore Kwon Alexander, who only played seven games, but would have seen plenty more action if hadn't suffered a broken ankle midseason. Alexander could be primed for a huge season and might be the team's best linebacker. Senior Tahj Jones only played in one game last year because of academic issues, but he'll have every chance to start outside. Sophomores Deion Jones, Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist all saw good time last year and will be in the rotation along with incoming freshman Kendell Beckwith, who could immediately push for a starting spot.

3. Ole Miss: The Rebels work in that 4-2-5 defense, but have a lot of talent at linebacker, starting with big-hitting senior captain Mike Marry, who has 22 career starts and finished last season with 78 tackles with 10.5 for loss. The pleasant surprise from this group last year was Denzel Nkemdiche, who was a second-team All-SEC member as a freshman after leading Ole Miss in tackles (82), tackles for loss (13) and forced fumbles (four). The thing that makes Nkemdiche so valuable is that he knows all of the linebacker positions and covers a ton of ground with his speed. Long-time Rebel D.T. Shackelford is back after two knee surgeries, but had a very good spring and should provide quality depth and excellent leadership. Then you have talented reserve Serderius Bryant, who could start at a lot of schools. Don't forget about the hybrid "Husky" position that will feature top recruit Antonio Conner.

4. Tennessee: The Vols bring back the league's top tackler in A.J. Johnson and excellent pass-rusher Curt Maggitt, who had his 2012 season shortened because of injury. He should be back to full health this fall, but could move to defensive end. Johnson has a chance to play his way into the first round of next year's NFL draft. Senior Dontavis Sapp doesn't have a ton of experience, but was a star this spring and has the ability to play any of the linebacker spots. Four senior backups return and have combined to play in nearly 140 games. The only problem is that they've also combined for just one start. Senior Brent Brewer also moved from safety to linebacker to give the Vols a lot of speed on the outside.

5. Florida: The Gators lost two valuable players in Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, but they still have a ton of young talent to work with, starting with Antonio Morrison. He ran into legal trouble this summer, but he has a chance to be an All-SEC player after moving from outside to middle linebacker. Dante Fowler Jr. and Ronald Powell will rotate at the hybrid defensive end/linebacker "Buck" position, but Powell could see more time at strongside linebacker. If he's healthy after his two ACL injuries, he could be an elite pass-rusher. Hard-hitting and dependable Michael Taylor left spring as the starting weakside linebacker, while freshman Daniel McMillian had an outstanding spring at the Will position. Fellow freshman Alex Anzalone was a top recruit in the 2013 class and should vie for plenty of time, while vets Darrin Kitchens and Neiron Ball will push for starting spots.

6. Vanderbilt: This was supposed to be a concern for the Commodores last year, but it ended up being a strength. Do-everything leader Chase Garnham is back, along with his 43 solo tackles, seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. He's the heart of the defense. Hybrid linebacker/safety (Star) Karl Butler returns and should continue to put a lot of heat on opposing backfields. He registered 11.5 tackles for loss last season. Sophomore Darreon Herring has to replace the very reliable Archibald Barnes, but saw plenty of time last year as the Commodores' top reserve at linebacker. Sophomores Larry Franklin and Jake Sealand provide good depth after seeing significant time last year.

[+] EnlargeBenardrick McKinney
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreBenardrick McKinney was named to the Freshman All-SEC Team following last season.
7. Mississippi State: Starters Benardrick McKinney (102 tackles) and Deontae Skinner (62 tackles) return, giving Mississippi State a very sound foundation to work with. McKinney was quietly one of the league's top linebackers last year and could be even better this fall. Veteran Ferlando Bohanna, who has tremendous speed, will provide good depth, and the staff is excited about the versatility junior Matt Wells has. Losing Chris Hughes this summer hurts, but the Bulldogs will be able to cover a lot of ground with this group of rangy, athletic linebackers.

8. Georgia: Like every defensive position, the Bulldogs lost a lot at linebacker, but there is some promising young talent that should get better as the season goes on. Everything revolves around sophomore Jordan Jenkins, who could end up being an elite pass-rusher after learning under Jarvis Jones last season. Jenkins was second on the team in sacks last season with five and should be even more disruptive in Jones' old spot. Junior Amarlo Herrera started nine games and will be the captain of the unit inside. Junior Ramik Wilson had a very good spring and has found his spot inside, while sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons will play some linebacker when he isn't at safety and has a chance to be a star. Sophomore James DeLoach also had a very good spring outside. Freshmen Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin will also have ample opportunities for good playing time this fall.

9. Kentucky: Having Alvin "Bud" Dupree moving to defensive end hurts, but the Wildcats still have two solid options returning in Avery Williamson and youngster Khalid Henderson, who has playmaker written all over him. Williamson enters his senior season with 194 career tackles. Finding someone to take the other linebacker spot is the goal of fall camp. Miles Simpson started 11 games and had 70 tackles last year, but has to be more consistent. Junior Kory Brown and sophomore Josh Forrest will compete for that spot too and might be more athletic, but they lack experience. Malcolm McDuffen still hasn't reached his potential and Demarius Rancifer has decided to transfer.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost starters Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter and are now surrounded by youth. Veteran Steven Jenkins is back, but he missed spring practice due to offseason shoulder surgery. He had time to work with junior college transfer Tommy Sanders, which will help a lot this fall, as he vies for a starting spot outside. The Aggies will have to rely on youngsters at linebacker, but junior Donnie Baggs looks like he'll start at middle linebacker. But after that it's all about newcomers, including new linebackers coach Mark Hagen. Freshmen Reggie Chevis and Brett Wade both went through spring practice, which helps, but expect growing pains from this unit.

11. Missouri: The Tigers are fortunate to have senior Andrew Wilson and his 23 career starts back, but there isn't a lot of experience beyond that. Wilson has also led the Tigers in tackles in back-to-back seasons (79 last year). Donovan Bonner, a senior, and Kentrell Brothers showed flashes this spring, but both have to be more consistent. The same goes for Darvin Ruise, who entered the spring as a starter and played primarily on special teams last year. Keep an eye on freshman Michael Scherer, who has the talent to be a stud. There is athleticism here, but tackling was a major issue with this unit last year.

12. Arkansas: The Razorbacks return veterans A.J. Turner and Otha Peters, but the best overall player at this position might be junior college transfer Martrell Spaight. That could be both good and bad, but the fact of the matter is that Turner and Peters have to improve and get over their injuries from the spring if they want starting jobs this fall. Senior Jarrett Lake had a good spring and could be the leader here. Freshman Brooks Ellis could make an immediate impact too. Experience is a bigger issue than talent with this unit. Also, the staff could spend the preseason moving everyone around.

13. Auburn: This unit really struggled last year with getting lined up right and making tackles. There should be improvement with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense, but players need to get better. Star hybrid Justin Garrett had a great spring and could be primed for a breakout year. He can play in the box and cover, so he'll really help this unit. The good news is that Johnson needs just two linebackers for his 4-2-5 scheme. But those players have to perform. Sophomore Kris Frost made strides this spring and Jake Holland is experienced, while Cassanova McKinzy and JaViere Mitchell should vie for the other linebacker spot.

14. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost their entire two-deep at linebacker and had to move tight end Kelvin Rainey to linebacker to help with depth. There are a lot of bodies, but the experience is really lacking. Sophomore Kaiwan Lewis made strides this spring at middle linebacker, while junior Sharrod Golightly left spring with the edge at the hybrid Spur position. Freshmen T.J. Holloman and Jordan Diggs will compete for time this spring, but, again, they have no experience. Sophomore Cedrick Cooper missed spring while recovering from knee surgery, but should start at weakside linebacker.
It’s Rankings Week at DawgNation. Each day this week, we’ll rank some aspect of Georgia’s football program and the teams and players the Bulldogs will face in the 2013 season.

Today we’re ranking the top-10 defensive players the Bulldogs will face this season. On Thursday, we’ll turn to Georgia’s top-10 impact freshmen.

During the offseason, we've looked at the SEC's 3,000-yard passers, 1,000-yard rushers and 1,000-yard receivers from the 2012 season. Now, we'll wrap things up by looking at the players who registered 100-plus tackles last fall. We didn't have any preseason predictions on who would be in this category in 2012, so we'll just look at each player who crossed the century mark.

Last fall, the SEC had eight players record 100-plus tackles, which was two more than in 2011.

Here's a look at the top tacklers in the SEC from 2012:

A.J. Johnson, LB, Tennessee: Johnson certainly didn't suffer a sophomore slump in Knoxville. He was all over the field for the Vols, leading the SEC with 138 total tackles. He notched 63 solo tackles and averaged 11.5 tackles per game.

Avery Williamson, LB, Kentucky: It seems like the Wildcats have had someone either near or at the top of the SEC when it comes to tackles the past few years, and it was Williamson's turn in 2012. He was second in the SEC with 135 tackles and led the league with 70 solo stops. He averaged 11.3 tackles per game.

Kevin Minter, LB, LSU: It was hard to find a busier defensive player in the SEC. Minter made all sorts of plays for the Tigers in 2012, and finished the year with 130 total tackles, including 55 solo. He averaged 10 tackles a game and racked up 17 solo tackles in LSU's 14-6 loss to Florida.

Cameron Lawrence, LB, Mississippi State: After ranking second in the SEC with 123 tackles in 2011, Lawrence registered 120 total tackles in 2012, including 54 solo. He averaged 9.2 tackles per game, but earned double-digit tackle totals in eight games.

Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia: Even though he was suspended for the first four games of the season, Ogletree ended the year near the top of the SEC in the tackles column. He finished the season leading the Bulldogs with 111 tackles and 63 solo stops.

C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama: Praised as one of Alabama's best and most complete defensive players last fall, Mosley registered 107 total tackles on the year and was second in the SEC with 66 solo stops.

Lamin Barrow, LB, LSU: Even with Minter running around all over the place, Barrow was still able to have a very productive fall with the Tigers. He grabbed 104 total tackles on the year, with 52 of them being solo stops.

Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State: He enjoyed a solid freshman campaign alongside Lawrence. He helped the veteran out by registering 102 tackles, with 45 of them being solo attempts.

Barking Dawgs: UGA quotes of the week 

October, 5, 2012
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ATHENS, Ga. -- As the No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs (5-0, 3-0 SEC) prepare for a key SEC East game at No. 6 South Carolina (5-0, 3-0) on Saturday, here is a selection of quotes from the Bulldogs’ coaches and players from throughout the week:

“We just try to come out there and play our game. We’re not trying to be like nobody else. But it’s a cool thing.” -- Tailback Todd Gurley, on the nickname ‘Gurshall’ that Georgia fans have bestowed on Gurley and freshman backfield mate Keith Marshall, a reference to legendary Bulldogs running back Herschel Walker

“Keith does a great job of pressing the hole on the zone plays and then his cuts are not two or three steps. They’re one-step cuts and he’s going vertical. Sometimes he’s moving so fast I feel like he’s almost going to fall down. It’s hard for a defender to stop when he’s pressing and his step is so fast and so vertical, I think that’s what makes him so dangerous.” -- Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, on Marshall, who broke touchdown runs of 75 and 72 yards last week against Tennessee

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Georgia Awards Tracker: Week 5

October, 2, 2012
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Each week during college football season, DawgNation will follow Georgia’s players as they compete for the sport’s national awards.

Seven Bulldogs made preseason watch lists for various college football awards. Here is a list featuring each player, the awards they are in the running for and how they performed in their Week 5 win against Tennessee:

NG John Jenkins, Sr. (Bednarik, Nagurski, Outland, Lombardi):
He recorded just one tackle, but Jenkins had a solid game pressuring the quarterback and came up with a key fourth-quarter fumble recovery as the Bulldogs’ attempted to protect a one-touchdown lead against the Volunteers.

DE Abry Jones, Sr. (Hendricks):
Coming off an ankle sprain suffered against Vanderbilt, Jones was unable to contribute much against Tennessee. He contributed one tackle and half a tackle for a loss, but watched from the sidelines for most of the Bulldogs’ shootout win.

LB Jarvis Jones, Jr. (Bednarik, Nagurski, Lott IMPACT, Butkus, Lombardi, Camp):
Tennessee’s talented offensive tackles mostly kept Jones from harassing quarterback Tyler Bray, but he still recorded eight tackles, half a tackle for loss and one quarterback pressure.

WR Tavarres King, Sr. (Biletnikoff):
Both of King’s catches came on the same first-quarter drive. He caught a back-shoulder throw from Aaron Murray for a 31-yard gain, dragging cornerback Justin Coleman for nearly 10 yards after making the catch. Two plays later, King cut across the middle and caught a 7-yard Murray pass, dragging linebacker A.J. Johnson to within inches of the goal line. The officials initially ruled the play a touchdown before determining King’s knee was down at the 1 upon review.

QB Aaron Murray, Jr. (Maxwell, Manning, O’Brien, Camp):
Murray probably had his rockiest outing of the season -- an interception return for a touchdown and a lost fumble at the Georgia 8 leading to another touchdown are the main reasons why -- but he still led the offense to 560 total yards and 51 points. Murray finished 19-for-25 for 278 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

CB Branden Smith, Sr. (Hornung):
Smith was beaten in coverage several times and finished with three tackles against Tennessee, giving him 14 this season. Smith also has a team-high five pass breakups. He still has not contributed on offense or special teams.

DE/LB Cornelius Washington, Sr. (Butkus):
Washington made four tackles against Tennessee and had a key quarterback pressure on the Vols’ final snap when he nearly sacked Bray and forced him to rush a throw that was tipped and intercepted by Sanders Commings. Washington is second on the team with seven quarterback hurries.

Upon Further Review: UGA-Tennessee 

October, 1, 2012
10/01/12
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ATHENS, Ga. -- If ever the old line “survive and advance” applied, it would have been after Georgia’s mistake-filled 51-44 victory over Tennessee. But the Bulldogs did survive -- and that keeps them undefeated entering Saturday’s SEC East showdown at South Carolina.

Let’s review some of what I learned from watching a recording of CBS’ broadcast of UGA-UT in this week’s “Upon Further Review.”

[+] EnlargeChristian Robinson
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireGeorgia linebacker Christian Robinson (45) celebrates after the Bulldogs' win over Tennessee on Saturday.
" I’m convinced that the biggest play in the game that didn’t involve a score or a turnover was when Malcolm Mitchell failed to field a Tennessee punt in the second quarter and it wound up rolling to the Georgia 1-yard line.

Georgia is up 27-10 at this point. Everything is working right. The offense is absolutely crushing Tennessee and the defense hasn’t given up a touchdown yet -- the Volunteers’ lone TD at this point is Byron Moore’s 35-yard interception return for a touchdown -- but the train starts to veer off the tracks on this possession that could easily have started out near the Georgia 20 instead of up against the goal line.

The punt initially landed at the Georgia 17, and Mitchell was at the 11 at the time and clearly was indecisive about whether to try to field it. He thought about grabbing it at the 10 and again at the 5 (which would have been a really poor decision by that point), but opted to stay away.

Prophetically, CBS’ Gary Danielson said immediately afterward, “It might not pop up in this football game -- might not, but it could. But to beat the best, you’ve got to field those.”

Georgia’s offense went three-and-out -- and I should note here that on third-and-3, if Mitchell had done a better job blocking his man, Justin Coleman, on a Keith Marshall run to the right, perhaps Marshall could have picked up a first down instead of Coleman tackling him for a 1-yard gain and forcing a punt. Bad sequence there for Mitchell, who was later replaced by Rhett McGowan on punt returns.

" Georgia’s offensive balance has, in my opinion, been what makes the Bulldogs so difficult to defend. It’s tough for an opponent to give Aaron Murray and the passing game the attention it deserves when it has to focus on Marshall and Todd Gurley’s ability to make big things happen in the running game. The freshmen and the offensive line deserve a ton of credit again, as there were several runs in which they reached the secondary untouched -- seriously, I don’t think a single Tennessee player laid a hand on Marshall on either his 75- or 72-yard touchdown runs -- and that is obviously a bad sign for defenses, given their ability to make people miss in the open field.

Speaking of which, individual blocking credits on Marshall’s two long TD runs: 75 yards in the first quarter (Merritt Hall, Kenarious Gates, David Andrews), 72 yards in the third quarter (Jay Rome and Mark Beard cleared a huge hole and Andrews picked off linebacker A.J. Johnson to get Marshall loose).

That said, it will be interesting to see how well Georgia moves the ball when it’s obvious to everyone that they want to move it on the ground. The Bulldogs were completely ineffective in such a situation in the fourth quarter against Tennessee. They had three different opportunities to mount drives that would run some clock after Tennessee’s final touchdown made it a one-score game with 8:56 to play. Georgia’s final three drives: four plays, 12 yards, 1:25 time of possession; three plays, 4 yards, 1:49; three plays, minus-2 yards, 1:07. They’re fortunate that the defense bowed its neck and UT quarterback Tyler Bray made some big errors, because that was really bad.

At the end of three quarters, Georgia had 538 yards of total offense. In the fourth quarter alone, the Bulldogs picked up one first down and ran 13 plays for 22 yards (20 passing, eight carries for 2 yards). I will say that Murray made a great third-down pass over a leaping Curt Maggitt -- I mean a picture-perfect throw against a blitz that would have gone for a huge gain, if not a touchdown -- but it went straight through Rantavious Wooten’s hands at the 50 and Georgia was forced to punt. A completion there probably ices the game.

" Conversely, It was interesting to see how easily Tennessee moved the ball on the ground late in the game. At one point between the Volunteers’ last touchdown drive and the one that followed, they ran the ball on eight straight plays for 41 yards and three first downs and a touchdown. Every play went for positive yardage.

I’m sure Georgia was trying to respect the passing game in that situation -- and it didn’t help that defensive end Abry Jones was clearly not healthy yet -- but Todd Grantham’s guys are obviously not taking away the run first like they did a year ago. There was a 218-yard difference between Tennessee’s output on the ground in this game (197 rushing yards, right at 5 yards per carry) vs. its performance against Georgia last year (minus-21).

With South Carolina’s running game and an improving Marcus Lattimore ahead, that’s a huge red flag for Georgia’s defense.

" It would be unfair to describe Bray’s performance as awful, but it definitely left a lot to be desired. He passed for 281 yards and two touchdowns and made some crazy-good throws -- including a deep ball where a wide-open Cordarrelle Patterson had beaten Branden Smith and probably would have scored a touchdown, but he dropped the ball.

But Bray also made some horrendous mistakes, and not just by turning the ball over on each of the Vols’ last three possessions. Those were all bad plays, though. Both passes that Sanders Commings intercepted were poor throws -- one to the inside instead of outside to the sideline where Commings couldn’t have picked it; one was behind Zach Rogers, who tipped it up into the air and allowed Commings to make the interception; and he let Jordan Jenkins slap the ball from his hands after the pocket collapsed, causing a fumble that John Jenkins recovered.

Plus he missed open receivers on a couple of crucial throws that could have altered the course of the game. Early in the third quarter when Georgia was reclaiming control, Bray twice threw inaccurately on third-down passes that could have extended drives. On Tennessee’s first drive of the second half, he threw behind a wide-open Justin Hunter, who had beaten Smith, and the ball fell incomplete.

On the next drive, he nearly threw an interception to Alec Ogletree on back-to-back plays and whistled a pass to Hunter that barely missed him. Commings had fallen down in coverage and Hunter was open. Marc Deas blocked the ensuing punt and Georgia capitalized by driving for another touchdown and going up by two scores. Huge momentum change there.

" Speaking of that play, credit Deas for recognizing a tendency by Tennessee wingback Moore on the play and taking advantage of it. He told me after the game that Moore had been overstepping on his drop as he blocked and that left a crease for Deas to attack the punter. Sure enough, Deas started out on the far left on this punt, Moore dropped too deep and Deas cut inside him toward punter Matt Darr. Moore got a piece of Deas’ left shoulder, but he was still able to get his right arm free to block the kick. Very well done.

" Commings had a nice game. I think that SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Week award he won today was well-deserved. Damian Swann had Georgia’s third interception and it was also highly impressive. Ogletree deflected a pass across the middle, tipping it high in the air, and Swann absolutely skied over Smith and Patterson and caught the ball with one hand at midfield. Tremendous athleticism there.

" Danielson saw Murray’s first touchdown pass to Michael Bennett coming even before Tennessee did. Bennett was lined up in the slot and Tennessee safety Moore had given him about an 8-yard cushion, prompting Danielson to draw a circle on Bennett on the screen just before the snap. Sure enough, he was able to cut in front of the UT safety and Murray whistled a TD pass to him for an easy score that helped Georgia go up 37-30. Good recognition there by Murray -- and by Danielson.

" The final score and the way things played out makes this an obvious statement, but this was a really sloppy game by Georgia. It seemed like I was consistently writing down about so-and-so blowing a blocking assignment or covering the wrong receiver or dropping a pass or not making an interception that was there for the taking. They can’t afford to make this many errors at South Carolina or it won’t work out so well.

A few examples:

  1. Bacarri Rambo tried to jump a pass route and went for an interception in first quarter. He doesn’t get to the ball in time and Tennessee’s Rogers makes a catch at the Georgia 35. He probably would have scored a touchdown there, except that he fell down. Rambo did come back with a big third-down stop to end that drive and force a field goal, however.

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Georgia Top 10: Week 5 

October, 1, 2012
10/01/12
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Tennessee nearly upset a sloppy Georgia club Saturday, but Mark Richt's Bulldogs survived to win 51-44 and remain undefeated entering Saturday’s SEC East showdown at South Carolina.

It’s somewhat hard to believe, given the considerable experience on Georgia’s roster, but two true freshmen -- tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall -- are near the top of this week’s UGA Power Rankings. The backfield duo combined for 294 rushing yards and five touchdowns in Saturday’s win against the Volunteers, which helped them surge past the team’s many veterans in the rankings.

Here is the full list after five games (last week’s rank in parentheses):

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